OPINION: Planning a Sustainable Future

Updated: Jun 12, 2019


Matthew Torkelson | NextGen Marin

Over time, Marin County has experienced a notable increase in economic well-being. As new industries appeared in the first half of the twentieth century, Marin grew aggressively to accommodate the rising population by developing infrastructure and housing. As Marin’s population grew further, more businesses followed and Marin transitioned into a healthy and prosperous community. The economic growth of this region ultimately gave way to the fine quality of life that many residents of Marin County enjoy today.


But this growth has nearly stagnated. While the Bay Area economy is currently thriving, Marin County only accounts for a small portion of the resulted growth. In fact, the California Department of Finance estimates that from July 2016 to July 2017, Marin was the only county in the Bay Area to decline in population. Additionally, the CA Employment Development Department’s 2017 research shows that job creation in Marin has decelerated to 1.9%. Moreover, the population that does call Marin home is aging, which means there is increasingly less labor participation and economic productivity. If we acknowledge these trends to be detrimental to the prosperity of Marin, common sense would tell us that we must embrace growth for the sake of Marin’s future—but therein lies the disconnect. The structural development that facilitates a growing economy claims space, and as the laws of physics state: our finite planet with finite resources cannot accommodate infinite growth. So where is the line drawn?


In 1983, twenty-one political leaders from a diverse list of countries established a commission that examined the dilemma between economic growth and environmental protection. Their famous report known as “Our Common Future”, or “The Brundtland Report” attempts to define “sustainable development”, and in their quest for objectivity, it is theorized that sustainability of human civilization rests on three pillars, the pillars being: economic growth, environmental protection, and social equity. For example, whereas a civilization cannot prosper without a healthy economy, nor can it without natural resources or a fair amount of peace and equity. It’s important to conceptualize these pillars as the three legs of a stool where the pillars are not clashing forces—but forces united in sustaining a greater entity.


The Brundtland Commission would most likely agree that if we so desire a viable future, we must respect the structural importance of each leg on the stool, and doing so requires an acceptance of the implications of our actions and inactions. For instance, in our devoted protection of Marin’s low density and small-town character, development is pushed elsewhere which leads to unplanned-sprawl, inflicting irreparable damage to our environment. By obstructing attempts to grow and build homes in this county, Marin simultaneously falls short of meeting its present housing needs while compromising future generations to meet theirs. Considering our aging population and general resistance towards advancing our locality, inter-generational equity is compromised, and not to mention, diversity of all kinds.


Growing our community is the only sustainable response to Marin’s demanding needs, and this can only be achieved by fully embracing the development necessary to do as such. Environmental protection and economic growth are not currently mutually exclusive because building on existing urban areas will grow our economy and curb sprawl development. Simultaneously, growing existing urban areas will reduce the emissions of those who commute into Marin each day—62% of Marin’s workforce according to a 2014 Greenbelt report. However, we will only be effective in changing Marin’s prospective health by cooperating towards achieving a clear set of goals as declared below.


1. We must bridge the disconnect between strict, economic growth advocates and environmentalists by realizing that we are essentially fighting for the same thing: To protect our quality of life and that of future generations.


2. We must prioritize the sustainable growth of our existing urban areas by reforming our zoning laws, specifically those near public transportation services. Such a task shall entail collaboration between the public and private sectors.


3. Imperatively, we must incentivize developers to commit to these projects by reducing the fees imposed upon them that are largely responsible for the shortage of housing today.


Planning a sustainable future matches long term goals with immediate actions. It’s time for Marin to embrace its necessary growth.

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